#VisualPeople: How Comics and Chronicles Collide in Canada’s Group of 7

This article appears as part of Visual People, a Q&A series devoted to profiling visually in-tune folks who work in a diversity of industries. Subscribe or follow along on Instagram. #visualpeople

by Samantha Mehra

This time in Visual People, we talked with Chris Sanagan and Jason Lapidus, the two minds behind the Canadian comic, Group of 7. An admitted labour of love, the burgeoning series at once delivers classic comic book visuals with a distinctly Canadian narrative (it’s educational, too!).

Chris Sanagan

Group of 7 is the product of a symbiotic creative partnership between two history nerds (they are much more than this, as you’ll read). Based in Guelph, Ontario, Chris Sanagan provides the words in this Canadian historical action-adventure comic book series, as well as in the upcoming Peregrines. That he has an interest in historical content makes sense: He is a professional archivist, and also holds a Masters of Information Studies from the University of Toronto. His words have been doing the walking for some time, too: His writing credits include Spacing Toronto, The American Archivist and the Guelph Mercury Tribune.

Jason Lapidus

The hand holding the other pen, the one furiously illustrating historical vignettes in comic book form, belongs to Jason Lapidus, a freelance illustrator who also somehow has time to operate a leadership and communication consulting business. Aside from producing the art for Group of 7, Jason has illustrated for the Guelph Mercury Tribune and, like Sanagan, is contributing his art to Peregrines. Prior to making comics, Jason was an elementary school art teacher, taught comic arts at the Royal Ontario Museum and served as a communication professor at George Brown College.

Here, in this six-question, quick-fire Visual People, the two discuss their comic, their friendship, their art-making, and what drives this compelling and educational labour of love (and their stance on the important Garfield vs. Heathcliff debate). Read on, and grab your copies of Group of 7 here.

SM: I’m sorry to ask you a rather dopey, general question to begin with, but let’s orient our readers: What is Group of 7?

CS: Group of 7 is an action-adventure comic book set during the First World War, which features a who’s-who of famous historical Canadians teaming up on a secret mission to save the world. The team consists of John McCrae, Conn Smythe, Frederick Banting, Lester Pearson, Norman Bethune, A.Y. Jackson, and Francis Pegahmagabow, all of whom were soldiers serving in Europe at the time the story takes place. The story’s backdrop is the Battle of Vimy Ridge, arguably Canada’s most famous and celebrated military victory.

SM: What is its origin story?

CS: The project came about rather organically, actually. We’ve been good friends for some time now and share a love for comic books and an interest in Canadian history and pop culture. I dabble in writing and Jason is constantly drawing. Four years or so ago, I pitched Group of 7 to Jason as an idea; he immediately relayed his enthusiasm, and we agreed to work on this project together. I began drafting a script and Jason began sketching character designs. Four years later, and Issue #3 is soon to be released!

image-3SM: I pored over the second issue (which had a John McCrae focus) and was engaged by the visual story-telling rooted in historical Canadian moments. It struck me as an excellent educational tool. So, this project seems like it would lend itself well to collaborations with educators and, in turn, students of history. Have you had any experience using Group of 7 in these ways?

CS: Absolutely! When we were developing Group of 7, its appeal as an educational resource was evident. Education is something very important to the both of us and has served as a large component of our personal and professional lives (Jason taught art for over a decade). We’ve been fortunate to take Group of 7 into a few classrooms (both elementary and secondary) and use the text and accompanying visuals to inform discussions on Canadian history, the visual arts and literacy. We even managed to organize a Group of 7 drawing session with a kindergarten class! Comic books and graphic novels can be such a valuable teaching tool and classroom resource and we’re thrilled that Group of 7 has found a responsive scholastic audience!

SM: How do you choose material that is both interesting and lends itself well to the comic book medium?

CS: Visually, Group of 7 is very much rooted in a traditional “superhero” comic book vein (save for the superpowers) so from an illustration perspective, our intention is to provide a thrilling and visually-immersive storytelling experience. So, lots of punch-ups, derring-do and over-the-top situations! We also draw visual inspiration from the very real history that informs Group of 7. The First World War was an especially brutal conflict that featured mechanized warfare on a mass scale. The decision to ink only in black and white allows Jason to use shadow and tone to full effect whilst emphasizing the harshness and brutality of the soldiers’ lived experience.

JL: We tend to not overthink it, but follow our own ideas in the process, hoping that what genuinely interests us will engage readers in some way. Whether I like it or not, artistically, I am a product of superhero comics and cartoons, and I enjoy searching for a balance between the various styles and historical references. The team of seven Canadians wear a hybrid of traditional soldier apparel and a more iconographic comic-style outfit, mostly because it is easier to recognize the good guys and bad guys that way. And the First World War uniforms flattered no one. In terms of the setting, we’ve created a shadowy world of trenches, battlefields, forests, and tunnels; I have to remind myself to move on to drawing the next panel and not over-detail sometimes.

SM: Between the two of you, living in separate cities but coming together creatively in a single issue: What does your creative process/collaboration look like?

image-2CS: Lots of texting. Story ideas, sales updates, design sketches, inspiration from superhero movies we’ve just seen, where we should go to eat burgers – everything and anything via text. The most important piece is that we’re equally committed to seeing this thing through to the end and we’re having such a blast along the journey.

JL: Chris shares his ideas throughout the writing process, and is genuinely open to feedback and collaboration, which is a relief because I’m wired for both. I share sketches via text, and Chris is very encouraging and supportive. It’s a great feeling, and I think we’d both like to make many more comics together.

SM: In your experience, what makes a comic representation of historical narratives important and impactful? What drives this labour of love?

CS: History, despite what or how some of us may have been taught, is not boring; it’s action-packed. So, developing a comic book informed by Canadian history was an easy choice. At the end of the day, we’re driven to do this because we feel it’s important to tell Canadian stories. These are the stories we love and share with our friends and family so why fight that impulse? When reading (or viewing or listening to) the work of others, we always say you can tell when someone has put their entire heart into it, that they love what they produce. We sincerely feel this way about Group of 7 and hope our readers do to.

JL: Most of us rely on our sight as our primary method of taking in information, so it helps make the dates, names, and events of the war more real for readers.

SM: Bonus question: Garfield, or Heathcliff?

CS: Gotta say Garfield. He can eat an entire lasagna!

JL: Heathcliff would win the death match easily since Garfield is slovenly.

Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Cool. Do you have any errors to report? Fantastic. Just Tell us about it.

*A big thank-you to the Group of 7 team for providing the above images for the purposes of this article.

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